Florida Home Architectural Style

The Florida Home is a distinctive, experimental style explored by architects such as Igor Polevitzky, Rufus Nims and Alfred Browning Parker in 1940s-50s South Florida.

Loosely based on the international style and the modern architecture of the period (Miami Modern, a play on the earlier Art Deco tropical modernism, was then the rage in hotel architecture), the Florida Home adapted many of the tenets of Modernism to the realities of the climate.

Bauhaus on a Budget

In fact, the mostly single-family homes often succeeded where their Bauhaus-era antecedents fell short in at least one respect: They were cheap. And while today it would be remarkable to find a truly well-designed, original and stylish home that is inexpensive, the architects of the time considered the edict, “make it affordable,” to be just another design challenge, one that reached its apex in 1946 during a contest to create a $5,000 (about $100,000 in today’s money) “GI House” for the many returning veterans hoping to start families,

Federal Housing Administration loans in hand.

The architects were able to indulge in a high degree of experimentation, creating homes that reflected the beauty as well as the practical needs of the region.

The Florida Home’s Open-Air Spaces

“Adapting the house to the climate was the theme,” says Allan Shulman, architect, University of Miami lecturer and co-curator of the 2005 Historical Museum of Southern Florida exhibit, The Florida Home: Modern Living from 1945-1965. “Appropriate, comfortable houses that fit a middle-class lifestyle – ‘livability’ was the buzzword.”

There seemed to be few limits on how this new livability could be achieved in homes where the goal was outdoor living, indoors. Architects took available ideas like screened porches and expanded on them to create entire open-air spaces that became known as “Florida rooms.”

Screened outdoor living, sleeping and dining and pool areas, first enclosed in mesh and later in plastic or retractable glass, abounded. To combat the elements while letting air pass through, the architects experimented with eaves, raised floors and the ubiquitous jalousie windows.

Examples of the Florida Home: Birdcage House, House of the 4 Corners, Hibiscus House

Polevitzky’s Birdcage House, or Heller House, on Biscayne Island is one such house, a “screened box” with split-level decks. The screened area includes not only the pool but even a tree, with a lagoon and beach “outdoors.” The upstairs levels are entirely open, with the downstairs reserved for periods of rain or South Florida’s infrequent chilly spells.

One of the most stunning houses of the period is Rufus Nims’ House of the Four Corners. Here, the architect uses his experimental technique of reinforcing naturally strong steel shapes (for the Sam Coslow house on Palm Island, he chose a revolutionary “hyperbolic paraboloid” shape: essentially, undulating waves of steel) with an overlay of concrete.

The stunning element is really in the extreme sensibleness of the design, in which the different parts of the house are divided into villas that are separated into four corners connected by covered walkways and surrounding a screened atrium, affording privacy as well as allowing those important southeasterly breezes to waft through.

Nims’ Hibiscus House, equally experimental, seems almost to “float,” as Shulman suggests, on its pilings, a building style now frequently seen in The Keys. Ever practical, Nims wanted a plan that would allow homeowners to circumvent such Florida bugaboos as rogue lizards. Wood panels with glass tops and bottoms create bars of light and ventilation.

Still another house of the period is Alfred Browning Parker’s multi-level Coconut Grove house complete with roof deck, built on a coral ridge over Biscayne Bay. The integration with nature coupled with its clearly Bauhaus origins gives the architecture a vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright feeling, but Parker has also veered away from Wright with Florida touches. He used transoms to create cross-ventilation and made a point of building with local wood and stone. The design later won the Pacesetter award.

The Florida Home’s Nemesis: Air Conditioning

A running theme in these homes was the need for creative ways to ventilate given the area’s often unbearable heat. Sadly, the advent of cheap air-conditioning in the 1960s tolled the death knell in many ways for the Florida Home.

However stylish and well designed, an open-air home in Miami is nowhere to be in August; many owners permanently covered over their homes to allow efficient air-conditioning. Practical, yes, but also a vitiation of the whole point of the homes.

Still, the principles of the Florida Home are far from lost today, particularly among condo architects, who strive to provide as much balcony space, natural light and panoramic vista as they can muster in steel, reinforced glass and concrete.